Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for July, 2016

Intuition and iOS

Ben Brooks makes the case that tasks on iOS are not inherently more difficult or more of a puzzle than on OS X, they’re just different:

But, this is a big but, we do already know how to intuitively do one of these things. We know how to find, and then drag and drop shit where we want it on a Mac — it’s effortless not because the task is easier, but because we know the steps without consciously thinking of the steps since we have been doing it for decades. That’s why it feels easier.

It feels harder on iOS only because you have to stop and think about how to do things, and then you question (because you are a nerd) if the way you thought of is actually the best/right/fastest/easiest way to do that thing.

Dr. Drang is, as he puts it, “sympathetic” to Brooks’ argument, but he thinks Brooks used the wrong example:

But we really don’t have to use the Finder at all. Following Ben’s example, let’s say we have an image file open in Preview and we want to edit it in Acorn. That same icon in the title bar, known formally as a proxy icon, is our ticket, because if we click on it and drag it out of the title bar, it behaves just like a Finder icon.

All we have to do is click on icon in the title bar and drag it over to Acorn in the Dock, and it’ll open.

I’m certainly not the first person to make this argument, but one of the things I think makes for a major head shift when moving to an iOS-centric workflow is that there’s very often just one way of doing something in iOS, while there are multiple ways of doing the same thing on the Mac. Consider the “move file from one app to another” example being used here. On iOS, you use the Share sheet, and that’s the only way, unless the app is stored in iCloud Drive or Dropbox and both apps support that as the file store. On the Mac, you can use the proxy icon, the Finder, the Open/Save sheet, or — in some cases — simply drag the file across in the open workspace.

But that naturally leads to a further question: is having more options inherently good? (Where by “good”, I mean some combination of “more productive” and “easier to use”.)

The myriad options offered for manipulating files on the Mac can certainly be helpful, but it’s also very frequently confusing. Note that I said that it’s sometimes possible to drag a file from one app to another, but this behaviour changes in different apps. For instance, dragging an email message from the inbox of Mail into a text box on a webpage in Safari will insert the subject line from that email. Dragging it to the desktop will save the entire message. Dropping the email into Messages will send a subject line linked to the email message which, to a recipient on a Mac, will not open because they won’t have a copy of that message on their system; on iOS, the link simply won’t appear as a link and the message will just display the subject line. Dragging the email into a Pages document will insert what I’m guessing is the message ID:

 message:%3C1278351782.9232459.1470746430332.JavaMail.email@email.apple.com%3E

Those behaviours can be helpful, but they can also be confusing. Limiting this inter-app file manipulation on iOS to just the Share sheet is more restrictive, yes, but it is also more predictable. If you’ve been using computers for eons, this predictability can seem unnecessary. But for those growing up in a computer-centred world, it’s possibly more logical to use an environment that doesn’t have this legacy baggage.

The Amazon-to-eBay Arbitrage Scheme

It’s not just counterfeit goods on Amazon that are a problem for legitimate businesses. Jason Feifer writes for Entrepreneur magazine on a new scheme that marries Amazon’s generally low prices and dubious eBay sellers:

To see how this works in real time, I go to eBay and buy a Ripple Rug. There are five listings for the product on this day, and I select one from a seller called AFarAwayGalaxy. The price is $49.51; on Amazon, Ruckel sells it for $39.99. So, how’d this listing get here? Almost certainly, the seller is using some kind of software — made by DS Domination or a competitor — that scans Amazon for its best-selling products. (They can also do this on large sites like Walmart’s, though most seem to focus on Amazon). The software found the Ripple Rug, which, on the day in June I buy it, is ranked number 25 in cat toys. Then it copied everything in the Amazon listing and pasted it into an eBay listing –amusingly, right down to the part of the product description that says, “Thank you for viewing our Amazon version of the Ripple Rug.”

The price is usually set between 5 and 15 percent over the Amazon price. When I make the purchase, the person behind AFarAwayGalaxy simply goes to Amazon and buys a Ripple Rug — but instead of buying it for themselves, they designate it as a gift and have it shipped to me. Because I paid $9.52 above the Amazon price, that’s profit, which AFarAwayGalaxy can keep (minus Paypal and eBay fees). This seller has more than 11,000 items listed on eBay. That can quickly add up to real money.

Both Amazon and eBay failed to condemn the actions of these individuals, and they didn’t commit to making changes to prevent this practice. It’s deceptive, and it hurts individuals and businesses more than it has the potential to turn a profit for the weaselly sellers who dabble in it.

Another Analyst Offers Tim Cook Some Advice

I haven’t seen one of these incredibly idiotic articles in a while, but I also haven’t read MarketWatch in a while. Vivek Wadhwa opines:

In June 1985, Bill Gates sent a letter to Apple CEO John Sculley and Mac development head Jean Louis Gassée, urging them license Apple’s operating system to other companies. Apple ignored his advice, and five months later, Microsoft released its own operating system, Windows. It went on to become the dominant player in the personal-computer industry while Apple floundered. Microsoft saved Apple from bankruptcy in 1997 by investing $150 million in it.

There are many ways to interpret this history lesson, but one thing is clear: building an open platform gave Microsoft MSFT a huge advantage. Yes, by focusing on design and integrating hardware and software, Steve Jobs was able to reinvent Apple AAPL and make it the most valuable company in the world. But this came much later, in the 2000s, after the opportunities were lost.

One has to wonder what would have happened if Apple had taken Gates’s advice.

Okay, rewind that:

Yes, by focusing on design and integrating hardware and software, Steve Jobs was able to reinvent Apple AAPL and make it the most valuable company in the world. But this came much later, in the 2000s, after the opportunities were lost.

All of the opportunities were lost for Apple to… — what, exactly? Not become the most valuable company in the world?

Wadhwa is wrong all over this shit show of an article. Apple did license their operating system in the ’90s, and it resulted in a devaluing of their brand and their engineering, both in hardware and software. Not only that, Macintosh clones barely made a dent in the overall Mac OS market share. Clones were unpopular, usually-terrible computers (see note below) that made Mac OS and — as a result — Apple look bad. Why repeat that?

Apple needs to do something dramatic before the spell wears off and we all begin to question the company’s innovation capability again. It needs to follow Bill Gates’s recommendation and offer its operating system on other platforms. Full-featured smartphones can be purchased for as little as $50 in China and India today; that price will fall to less than $25 over the next three or four years, and billions of people will be purchasing them. The market is still in its infancy. Apple should port iOS to Samsung, HTC, LG, Xiaomi, and other brands of smartphones. It still has a chance to displace Google’s Android and become the dominant smartphone platform—if it acts in time.

[…]

Will this eat further into iPhone revenue? Yes, it surely will, but this revenue is declining anyway and Apple needs to find alternative revenue sources.

Let’s briefly engage in this crazy parallel universe, just for the hell of it. In what world will an OEM choose to pay for licenses to iOS when Android is free? This is the problem Windows Phone has always had: Microsoft charged for it and established minimum hardware guidelines, thereby limiting its potential.

Any notion that Apple should follow in those footsteps is painfully misguided. But this article trips over itself so many times trying to justify its premise that it becomes clear that Wadhwa has no idea what he’s talking about.

And before you think I’m picking on some no-name analyst, he has some serious credentials:

Vivek Wadhwa, a former tech entrepreneur, is a Distinguished Fellow and professor at Carnegie Mellon University Engineering at Silicon Valley.

He’s also made the Time top 40 as one of the “most influential minds in tech”, and been recognized by Foreign Policy. I don’t think Tim Cook will be feeling his influence on this matter.

Update: Shawn King points to several examples of clones that were better than Apple’s hardware offerings at the time. I remember using bad clones, but clearly there were some good ones around, too.

Don’t Cry for Yahoo

Maya Kosoff, Vanity Fair:

Companies like Twitter and Yahoo already get too much benefit of the doubt by virtue of being in the tech sector. At the beginning, it’s assumed these companies will be unprofitable; investors clamor to pump money into them, typically on the strength of pitch decks and founder promises. In no other industry are companies allowed to flail for so long before ultimately getting smacked down by public or private markets.

This isn’t a purely capitalistic concern for me; it’s more about user rights because of those capitalistic concerns. There are just a handful of likely end-games for an unprofitable or poorly-performing tech company: fill it with ads, sell the company, or shut it down.

These are all concerning avenues for users. Adding advertising tends to mean user privacy is compromised, as ads become increasingly targeted by the day; shutting a company down means all user data gets removed, and it’s up to each user to find a new product or service to fill the hole. Rinse and repeat.

Arguably worse is when the company and all attached user data is acquired. There’s very little control any user has over that decision: they may like the original product, but are uncomfortable with the new owner. These decisions are impossible to foresee: if you signed up for Flickr ten years ago, or Tumblr five years ago, would you be expecting your photos and blog posts to end up in the hands of Verizon today?

Twitter is another rumoured acquisition target, and one of the rumoured buyers is Google. Would you continue to use Twitter if Google purchased it and your tweets become part of your Google advertising profile?

This income inequality problem is significant for the scale at which tech companies operate. On the one hand, there are tiny companies that don’t have a business model and can barely sustain themselves. On the other hand, there are massive whale-like companies that suck up the startup krill for their data, intellectual property, and engineering talent. And that means that the technology landscape becomes increasingly dominated by a few very large players.

You Know What’s Cool?

A billion iPhones, that’s what. At an employee meeting today, Tim Cook showed off the billionth one: what appears to be a rose gold iPhone 6S Plus.

The scale at which Apple operates is unprecedented. I was trying to find something — anything — to compare it to when I stumbled across a list of the best-selling products of all time. It’s a crappy “listicle”, but it provides some context. They say that 516 million iPhones had been sold at the time of the list’s creation in May 2014, which means that nearly half of all iPhones ever made have been sold in the last two years.

Apple Reports Third Quarter Results

Amongst some not-great iPhone and Mac sales are improvements in services, and a decent bump in iPad average selling prices despite a drop in total sales, potentially indicating more people choosing the iPads Pro. “Other” revenue was down for the first time in a while, probably because the Apple Watch debuted in Q3 2015.

Graham Spencer of MacStories put together a good roundup of reactions from Twitter, and highlights from the earnings call.

Illegally Downloading Music Like It’s 1999

Tom Usher, Vice:

Eventually the music industry worked out that it couldn’t just bash people with the proverbial stick, and it created the carrot of way cheaper legal downloading and streaming services, while also going around closing down the websites that had almost destroyed its business.

That tactic pretty much worked, and today I, like everyone else, am more than happy to wrestle with the extensive catalogs of YouTube and Spotify rather than endangering my computer with dodgy software. But I do wonder what happened to those old pirate websites, whether they still exist in some kind of internet graveyard or whether they have all been expunged.

So, as I was feeling particularly blue this week, I decided to try download Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” for free on every old pirate website, to see if any of them had sprung back up in my absence.

It is truly remarkable how long it took for major music labels and movie studios to realize that they couldn’t fight pirates directly; it is equally as remarkable how quickly most of us have transitioned to a streaming world. For ten bucks a month, you can get a virtually limitless catalogue of music on loads of different platforms — from the good, to the less good. For another nine bucks a month, you can get Netflix’s huge library of TV shows and movies. It’s taking the movie studios and distribution companies longer to figure out that holding out on Netflix doesn’t necessarily make it more likely that people will pay to rent an individual movie or buy a whole television show’s season, but they’re coming around.

But if you don’t want to pay for music or movies, it’s as easy as ever to surf the web while flying the Jolly Roger, as long as you know where to look. The fight against piracy has driven these kinds of sites underground, relying upon a more distributed network. Private torrent trackers remain popular, and offer plenty of records and movies that are virtually impossible to find on streaming services or elsewhere. Music blogs remain popular and continue to distribute RAR files hosted outside of the United States, making it difficult to remove either the blog or the files.

They may be illegal and they don’t encourage support for the artists and creators of the work, but all of these files come with a distinct advantage: there’s no DRM or licensing disputes to contend with. That‘s something that the major studios and labels have yet to solve. While we’re being encouraged to put our media libraries into the cloud, we’re also told that we’re not entitled to any of this media. We’re placing yet another controlling party between ourselves and what we’re trying to do, and that party has a poor track record of balancing their own wishes with consumer desires.

There are now more obstacles between us and pirated media compared to, say, ten or fifteen years ago. But streaming media has replaced some of those with potential obstacles that show up every now and again.

Transit Cartography

I know that this is effectively an advertisement for Transit, but it also happens to be very good at explaining some of the design decisions and difficulties encountered when trying to make maps for public transportation users. Between Google Maps and Transit — Apple’s Maps app doesn’t support Calgary yet — it’s an easy choice.

An Interview With Kara Swisher

New York magazine interviewed 113 journalists and polled them on the state of the media — what’s right and, more importantly, what’s wrong. Their responses were varied and frank, with a kind of candour that is admirable and eye-opening.

As far as I can tell, the only tech journalist interviewed for the piece was Kara Swisher. Jeff Wise was the interviewer:

What about with Marissa Mayer?

I was critical of her tenure from the beginning because of a lot of moves she made. Now, I’ve known her as an executive a long time, and I knew her background at Google, which was very mixed. So I was like, “Hey, just a second. She’s never run anything. Some of the selections of executives she’s making aren’t very good. It’s a bigger problem at Yahoo than people realize — she’s not going to just arrive and wave her golden wand and make it okay.” And people are like, “Why are you so mean to her?” and I’m like, “This isn’t high school, she’s an executive, she’s a highly paid executive at a major public company, and she’s messing it up.”

Turns out…

I kept saying, “This is not going to end well.” I don’t think it was mean. All I was commenting on was her business ability. And people were saying I was mean. I’m not mean, I’m accurate.

Fiery.

This is a terrific interview. Swisher has always been one of the sharpest minds in tech media. She’s not blind to the problems that are rife in it; or, indeed, in any other media niche.

Koenigsegg’s Analysis of Their Nurburgring Accident

Like Elon Musk and Tesla, the team at Koenigsegg is pretty open about communicating what they’re learning after mistakes and accidents. I think this might be one of the most frank and honest articles published by a company about what they did wrong, and how they’re fixing it. It’s refreshing.

And the car is pretty badass, too.

A Short History of Yahoo Acquisition Attempts

Now that Verizon has made official their purchase of Yahoo for $4.83 billion, it’s worth taking a look at the comparative value of this acquisition. I’ve already contrasted its price with how much Yahoo paid for GeoCities and Broadcast.com, but this is not the first time that a company has tried to buy Yahoo itself.

Back in February of 2008, Microsoft offered $44.6 billion to acquire Yahoo, in an attempt to better compete with Google. At the time, analysts speculated that it would be a difficult merger for antitrust reasons — an idea that seems positively quaint today. In the end, Yahoo rejected the offer:

After careful evaluation, the Board believes that Microsoft’s proposal substantially undervalues Yahoo! including our global brand, large worldwide audience, significant recent investments in advertising platforms and future growth prospects, free cash flow and earnings potential, as well as our substantial unconsolidated investments.

Later that year, Microsoft tried again, offering about $20 billion for Yahoo’s search functionality. While it was also rejected, Yahoo and Microsoft entered into a deal in 2009 that would use Bing’s search technology to power Yahoo. That deal was re-signed last year; its value was not disclosed.

While Yahoo has an illustrious history with Microsoft, part of the negotiations in 2008 involved a familiar friend. Nick Tabakoff of the Australian:

But any joint move by Microsoft and News could face stiffening resistance from Yahoo, with reports suggesting the portal and internet search directory is itself in discussions with Time Warner’s AOL about the two companies joining forces to combine their online operations.

Yahoo’s reported negotiations with AOL are being seen as a direct attempt to make it harder for Microsoft to control the portal. The reported move by News Corp, which owns The Australian, to enter the fray for Yahoo follows Microsoft’s February $US44.6 billion takeover bid for the group.

News has been mulling an alliance with Yahoo for much of the past year.

Not only was News Corp. involved in these negotiations, so was AOL. There were even suggestions at the time that AOL and Yahoo could merge.

Verizon bought AOL last year. In their announcement of the Yahoo acquisition today, they noted:

Yahoo will be integrated with AOL under Marni Walden, EVP and President of the Product Innovation and New Businesses organization at Verizon.

At last.

Stellar.io Has Officially Shut Down

Sad news from Jason Kottke:

Hi all, Jason here. I am not at all excited or happy or thrilled to announce that Stellar has been shut down and will not be coming back. This was not an easy decision to make. Building the site was some of the most fun I have ever had and watching people use and love it, well, it was very satisfying both personally and professionally. But as the reasons for discontinuing Stellar piled up over the past 2-3 years, it became obvious even to me that it was the only way forward.

Stellar never caught on the way I had hoped it would, and the cost (both in dollars and in even more precious time) doesn’t allow me to give it – and you – the attention that’s deserved. The site has been unstable since late 2015 and non-responsive since April, and it’s well past time to make it official. It’s better to be a fond memory than an on-going frustration.

I loved Stellar. It’s one of the few bookmarks I keep — well, kept — in my bookmarks toolbar, as opposed to squirrelled away in a bookmarks folder. There’s nothing else that works quite like it; nothing else with the same uncanny ability to surface really great tweets from friends of your friends. I used to check my Stellar feed every night before bed. I’ll miss it, but I’ll always appreciate Kottke’s work to make it as good as it was; it gives me a reason to miss the site.

Make America Colbert Again

This week, Marisa Guthrie of the Hollywood Reporter and Alison Herman of the Ringer published two interesting articles examining Stephen Colbert’s iteration of the Late Show.

While both Jimmy Fallon and James Corden have done spectacularly well in encouraging viewers to flood their friends’ Facebook and Twitter feeds with YouTube links, Colbert has struggled. Yet, in the last month or so, Colbert has managed to combine his intellect with videos that have a similar popularity as his competitors’.

The first was a daring “explanation” of Donald Trump’s reaction to the mass shooting in Orlando. This week, he’s been broadcasting live during the Republican National Convention, and will do so next week during the Democratic equivalent. Last night, however, he topped it all by bringing Jon Stewart back.

I don’t worry too much about the Late Show’s reluctance to create viral singalong videos. Colbert has an on-air personality that’s kind of like a lighter version of David Letterman, whom he replaced. That style of television is more sophisticated, and less dependent upon gags. I hope that’s not lost should they more rigorously pursue ratings or YouTube views.

Homeland Security Tried to Confiscate a WSJ Reporter’s Phones

Joseph Cox, Vice:

The agent passed over a document, which [reporter Maria Abi-Habib] later photographed and posted to Facebook, purportedly showing that the agent has the right to seize those devices. Abi-Habib instead said that the border agents would need to contact WSJ’s lawyers. After some back and forth, the agent went to see her supervisor, and eventually said Abi-Habib is free to go.

Abi-Habib said she reported the incident to a WSJ lawyer, encryption expert and the outlet’s in-house security. From those conversations, Abi-Habib says, “My rights as a journalist or US citizen do not apply at the border, as explained above, since legislation was quietly passed in 2013 giving DHS very broad powers (I researched this since the incident). This legislation also circumvents the Fourth Amendment that protects Americans’ privacy and prevents searches and seizures without a proper warrant.”

Per the Department of Homeland Security’s assessment (PDF):

The overall authority to conduct border searches without suspicion or warrant is clear and long- standing, and courts have not treated searches of electronic devices any differently than searches of other objects. We conclude that CBP’s and ICE’s current border search policies comply with the Fourth Amendment. We also conclude that imposing a requirement that officers have reasonable suspicion in order to conduct a border search of an electronic device would be operationally harmful without concomitant civil rights/civil liberties benefits.

Read that again, carefully, and realize that these three sentences completely undermine the Fourth Amendment at any border crossing, such as an airport, or within a hundred miles of the American border.

Pixellating or Blurring Text in Photoshop Creates Identifiable Patterns

Kashmir Hill summarizes for Fusion a study by Steven Hill, et. al. (PDF):

“In many online communities, it is the norm to redact names and other sensitive text from posted screen shots,” write the researchers, specifically citing Reddit. “Mosaicing and blurring have also been used for the redaction of high-profile government documents and celebrity social media.”

They should probably stop doing that. The UC-San Diego researchers found that they could use statistical models—”so-called hidden Markov models”—to generate the blurring or pixelation of lots of numbers, letters, and words, to the point that their software program could match a known redaction to an unknown redaction to figure out what it says. The biggest challenge is figuring out the font and size of the underlying text which the researchers need for their deciphering. They say it works better than a brute-force technique for deciphering pixelated images discussed by Dheera Venkatraman in 2007.

There’s a great reason why intelligence agencies redact documents by placing an oversized black bar on top of the text in question, then printing and scanning the document to make it unrecoverable. The latter steps were not performed by the New York Times in 2014, and it lead to the unintentional exposure of sensitive information from a Snowden-leaked NSA document.